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Early in June I sat down with three of SPACES’ full time staff members—Christina Vassallo, Executive Director; Marilyn Ladd-Simmons, Gallery Oracle; Bruce Edwards, Residency Coordinator—and two long time board members: Laila Voss and Jeff Chiplis. Over the course of an hour and a half, we talked about SPACES’ past, present, and future, ultimately producing a far longer transcript than initially intended. Representing roughly half of what we discussed, the dialogue that follows below scratches only the surface of how SPACES sees its own image. Presented here in condensed form, this interview was recorded live at SPACES on June 2nd, 2015; and it’s a longer one, so sit back, scroll down and enjoy.
Indra Lacis: When and how did you first encounter SPACES?
Laila: My first contact with SPACES was actually when they were in their first place on Euclid, in Playhouse Square, and there was an exhibition where somebody had hung, in zip lock bags, debris they had collected in the streets and I was like, ‘Huh, this is what people are doing…!’ And then my next real contact was in 1985 when I’d become part of the Domo project. It was when SPACES was on West 6th Street and the whole project was about creating a living loft space in the gallery to attract the idea of people moving back into the city, so it was a part of the whole energy going in towards revitalization.
IL: How about you, Bruce?
Bruce: My first encounter with SPACES was when I was in school at Kent [State University] and I think it was 1988. And Paolo Keith, who was the sculpture instructor I was taking classes from, organized a field trip. We saw [what was then] the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art [now the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland] and we stopped in at SPACES … there was a cage that had been built all the way around the gallery where rats were running … mice or rats. They were all over the walls and around in the back and in through the office and you could, as a viewer, actually wander into the office where somebody was working, and it was part of the exhibition and so I was like ‘wow, this is cool because this is a place that you could get away with it’.
Perfect, good. Marilyn?
Marilyn: Okay, my first encounter was when I went to school at Baldwin Wallace and Paul Jacklitch was a new teacher from CSU who took us to SPACES. He was like ‘you’re going to the city’. So we went and I think we saw Ken Nevadomi. Then, when I graduated in ‘88, I just took my resume around and came here and it was in the middle of a hurricane […] and I kept coming by […] Then I was hired because nobody else knew how to use the computer.
And how about you?
Christina: My first interaction with SPACES was in the summer of 2013. I was a grant review panelist for the NEA and I read through the SPACES application. At the time I was running Flux Factory, an art collective in Queens, and it really struck me. It sounded like there was an obvious kinship between the artistic community I was running in Queens and here, and so I got really interested in SPACES. I started paying attention, seeing what SPACES was putting up, and then I saw that they were looking for a new executive director and I was like ‘hey, I’m ready to leave New York City,’ let’s see if this will stick.
How would you describe SPACES to someone who’s never heard of SPACES?
Christina: We’re an organization that supports artists’ visions and the creation of their work. It’s really unique for an organization of our size—because we’re on the larger side of small—but we support artists financially with projects in ways that larger institutions don’t. And so in many ways, I think that we set a national example for how artists could be working with organizations.
SPACES started as an artist run organization, so this idea of financial support, at least in my understanding, was never a core or charter. Is SPACES still an artist-run organization?
Christina: We’re artist-driven and everything we do is in the service of the artist’s vision, but also connecting the artist to the audience. I’m personally not an artist but I take all of my cues from what our artists are presenting and how we might be able to connect our audiences to them. But half of our board—actually 60 percent of our board—is comprised of artists. Many of our staff members are artists.
Is it in your bylaws that half, or 60 percent of the board, have to be artists?
Christina: Half of the board, but we’ve exceeded that.
So what are the pros and cons of an artist-run board? I find it very refreshing and I’m sure board members find it refreshing; it’s an expectation of giving in a way that isn’t out of your pocketbook.
Bruce: The biggest pro is that the board’s expectation, of what the artist might provide, is more accepting of who artists are, what they do, how wild they can be, maybe how non-commercial or even controversial their work is. The board is much more accepting of these things because that’s [how] artists [are]. We’re going to present what artists want to do; then we have to accept what artists do. You don’t get a lot of flack, I’ve never heard flack back from the board on any of the projects.
Laila: The board’s pretty diverse and at different times the range of artists we’ve had on the board has also been very diverse. Very different ideas about well, what is contemporary art? Well, what’s contemporary art to you? […] Not everybody is super excited about every single show that we have, but that’s not the point. Right? The point is that we’re exhibiting work that artists are thinking about and different kinds of strategies that they use, whatever that may be, and so it’s not about making everybody happy all the time.
Jeff: So sometimes they need a little explaining to go along with it.
What do you mean, “explaining”—to the board or to the public?
Jeff: Well, the board but also the general public, too. There needs to be a little explaining about their general concepts and also what they’re seeing, what they’re experiencing and like, right now, out there with the hayride. Some people may not think of [it] as art, they may just think of it as something fun. But if they see it in galleries then maybe they’re going to think differently about it.
How does SPACES define experimentation and what’s the unique role of experimentation in defining the programming here?
Christina: Experimentation is so integral to the artist community. When we talk about science, experimentation is accepted as part of innovation but when we talk about experimentation with arts organizations, something changes. Experimentation is almost taboo; with the sciences, it’s just expected that there is experimentation. Somehow the experimentation in art needs to be covered up, so I think one of the unique things about SPACES is that we unveil that [process] and we let that really drive what we do here. So, for me, the definition of experimentation is artists who embrace unfamiliarity and artists attempting to do something but haven’t yet had the resources to pull it off, which is where we come in. A proposal that expands the notions of art- and exhibition-making, something that we haven’t yet seen before or something that presents a new angle and, particularly for me, a project that responds to timely issues, whether it’s a line of aesthetic inquiry or confronting current events.
Any other comments on this? Why is experimentation so important to SPACES?
Laila: That’s what helps to create dialogue and what also helps to create a destination point. […] Artists are trying new things, they’re dealing with issues; you have all of these different ideas coming together and they remain concrete in different types of ways. It creates a locus for excitement, something that might be intellectually challenging and helps to move the culture forward.
Jeff: When we’re doing programming, a lot of times in the past, people have been accepted [to an exhibition] and then they automatically think that’s what they have to show. When, in fact, we would rather see something [else] … we like what you’re doing along this path but we don’t necessarily want to see the proposal, we want to see you do something beyond that, something we haven’t seen yet but we’re encouraging you. We’re giving you, the artist, a show to do something new to you, and something new, to experiment.
Christina: I could build on that. The most recent example is Andy Curlowe’s “What if This City Was a Mountain?,” where we know him as a painter and we’d never seen anything like what he produced here. And he just said to us ‘I want to answer this simple question of what if this city were a mountain’. And for us it was a huge leap of faith to say we don’t know what this will look like, but have at it. But I think it was a huge leap of faith for him too. And that he trusted us to help him with the project, too. Yeah, I think that’s where SPACES is most impactful.
Marilyn: Some artists get really scared of that. When we changed Space Lab and made it more of a conversation, it helped [artists] build on their ideas. Some of them were a complete success and then there were veterans that had an amazing idea and we tried to foster it, and then in the end, it just failed and they ended up just putting up normal stuff and then a little experiment that didn’t really go anywhere […].
What is the role of trust in this kind of set up, and this idea of generosity and how that can be an extension of trusting someone as an artist?
Bruce: Well you’re kind of talking about the emotional toll of that. We get the applications, right, we look at them and then, as Jeff said, well now that you proposed this project, what do you want to make? We aren’t holding you to this project because a lot of times the show is a year away. We pick artists, we don’t pick shows. The trust of that process takes good artists.
Marilyn: Steve Lambert came in and I forget his first idea but it wasn’t to make a sign. And then he said, “I want to make a sign,” and we’re like, okay let’s find some sign makers.
Laila: He was like, ‘I want to interview a politician’. And everything he asked for we said yes. And he was floored because I think this was unique from anywhere he’d gone before to do a project because before there were always constraints. It’s like ‘no you can’t do that—that’s too political’ or ‘you can’t do that because that’s too outside the gallery’ or whatever the reasons were. And he gets here and SPACES was willing to back whatever idea he decided he wanted to do. And out of that came his capitalism signs. And they traveled to many cities. I think it’s in London now.
Christina: Yeah, it’s been around the world.
Christina: Something you said [Bruce] really resonated with me, maybe emotional toll, and I feel like running an artist-driven organization is like trying to put a bridle on a wild horse. We’re here to serve the artist’s vision, and sometimes they come in and they want to have a really organic flow of ideas, but often times we need to know what they’re doing three months in advance, so we can build interest and get momentum around it, and sometimes that can weigh down the artistic process, but it’s also necessary. I think there’s friction in there that can sometimes lead to success and sometimes failure.
Do you want to talk about collaboration a little, and can you site your own philosophy on that?
Christina: We have a lot of different perspectives on collaboration and a lot of the work here is fluid because there are five full timers and we work really closely with the board, so I think collaboration is integral in every part of the organization. A specific example that I’m really excited about is our upcoming November 2015 R&D exhibition called “The People’s Museum of Revisionists Natural Itstory.” I developed this idea with my co-curator, Kristin Rogers, and we invited upwards of ten artists to be part of this project to turn SPACES into a natural history museum. Each artist is coming at it with an installation that will somehow serve as a footnote to the dominant narratives that are present throughout the study of natural history. We want to upend some of that and challenge the status quo, especially the male-dominated history of exploration. What is so interesting to me that is unfolding through this project is that we chose each artist because they were working with a concept that somehow fits, and we’ve been meeting once a month talking about what each artist wants to work on, and then they’re adding to each others’ ideas and it’s this process of feedback that is actually creating a really cohesive exhibition where we have biology and botany represented, and we’re dealing with climate change deniers through this project, and somehow everything is covered. That came from people shooting back and forth during these conversations, which created this safety net, because a lot of artists who were included in the show just make whatever they want to make for their shows, right, but this is something that we’re doing together, so there’s some give and take with like 15 other people. It’s been a messy process but I think it’ll be greater than the sum of these individual parts.
Marilyn: Talking from the past, I think a lot of SPACES programming comes from funding and there was a point where collaboration from other cities was very, very rare. So “Urban Evidence” and “Regional Forecast” were shows where artists went to different cities, so in order to see the whole show you had to go to Pittsburgh and Detroit and Cleveland. That collaboration was getting people out of the cities and into places they might not have been to. So our collaborations have changed with the public. […] The magical part about the events is that a lot of the artists or people who come here, or show here, or can’t show here, are still a hundred percent driven to help the organization.
Christina: I think places like SPACES remain important in this really complicated cultural ecosystem because even though we grow and evolve and get bigger and increase our budgets, we still have a really tight grasp on the grassroots beginning, like our reason for coming together. It’s still there and it’s still this common thread, this very idea of people gathering to create something bigger than any one individual could create.
You’ve been here in Cleveland for a little more than one year, Christina. What would you say to an artist, a curator, or a writer who is thinking about moving here? Can you speak to that both professionally and personally?
Christina: One of the things I was really impressed with when I first came here was this feeling of collegiality among the different organizations in the visual art scene and. So, if you’re planning to move here as a cultural producer, be ready to tap into it and give something to it, not just take from it. I think that a vibrant art scene requires the big guns like CMA and MOCA and the more nimble projects like Forum art space and Survival Kit, and also the more specialized organizations like Transformer Station and SPACES. So as long as the audience is willing to invest their attention and their resources to ensure all these different layers can function, then we will continue on that path of being a forward-thinking creative city that is on par with other cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston. The more banal advice I’d give to someone is: be patient, find a flexible job that doesn’t exhaust your creativity, be nice to everyone, and don’t work in a vacuum
Right. I think the analogy you are making is that audiences feed the organizations as much as the organizations feed audiences. We think of institutions as providing something, but audiences are really the ones who nourish organizations.
Christina: It’s that nimbleness I think that will always keep SPACES fresh. We try to plan as far in advanced as we can, but we can afford to be reactive and responsive to whatever is happening. For instance, the RNC [Republican National Convention] is coming to town next year and our major programs are going to use the RNC as material, and if we were not to do that, then we would be completely remiss.
So following on that, I have a question for Marilyn because I feel like you personally sucked me into the art world when I was 19 or 20 … what does community building around art mean at SPACES, and for you personally? Sometimes when I come to SPACES it’s like you’re in someone’s living room more than an art gallery. Maybe you could say a few words about that.
Marilyn: Well maybe because I work on Saturdays, and I work with the public a lot, with interns and volunteers, you want to make sure that they understand what they’re seeing and understand the difference between our organization and a commercial organization. Sometimes on Saturdays, I feel like a tour guide. People come in and I tell them where to go, explain the show, tell them where to eat. And with volunteers we’ve worked with, we try to dive in and find out what are you doing, why are you here. Damario was here, he’s a student and he showed us his resume and Michelle and I looked at it and we were like ‘nuh-uh, do it again!’ We try to guide them and say, ‘Okay, you did lighting at SPACES? You are now a lighting technician’.
So you really are trying to nurture your volunteers.
Jeff: And then once you get them all cultivated […] then they say ‘I have to go now’.
Marilyn: I could grunt and Jim [a volunteer/intern] would know exactly what I was talking about.
Jeff: Yeah, you hate to train them too well because someone else is going to see that and wave a dollar bill at them. But still you want to feed them enough that they can grow and hopefully become better artists and citizens of the world and then maybe they’ll be thinking about us in the future and they go, oh wait a minute, I got an idea that I should send back to these people and lord knows, it’s happened.
My last questions are for you, Christina. What’s your outlook with steering the ship forward and what is your leadership philosophy?
Christina: My leadership mantra is to leave room for creative chaos. That’s it. You never know what you’ll find. I love the fact that we have an open call process for our projects because it expands what we can expect to receive. It’s not just coming from a limited set of people.
Okay. Tell us about how SPACES was planning on moving but is not anymore. Can you tell us about that?
Christina: We had a spot selected that we thought was going to be perfect for us and in the end when we entered into lease negotiation, it was not going to create a financially stable situation for us down the road on the long-term basis. And we always have to be thinking about SPACES 20 years down the road because moving is a big deal. So now we’ve reconvened our re-location committee and we’ve reassessed some of the tenets that led us to that place and figured out if they still hold true; yes, we do want to be more easily accessible; yes, we want to be more visible; yes, we want to be near peer organizations. So now the challenge is finding a space that’s large enough and close enough to other organizations where we can hit all of those benchmarks. We are really lucky because a lot of neighborhoods want us. It’s really nice to know that Cleveland holds us in good faith, and that we have a vital role in this community.
But you’re going to be staying in this building until…
Christina: The building was sold in 2013. The board, and Chris [Lynn] at the time, had the foresight to build in a three-year lease back agreement. So we can stay here until the end of November 2016, and that allows us to be really responsible and not to jump into anything that will not be good for us.
What is SPACES’ vision for five years down the road?
Christina: With our bold mission and upcoming relocation, SPACES is extremely well positioned to go even further as a vital community resource. A gathering place presenting thought-provoking projects that stretch our artists and audiences; where the art on display is an entry point for thinking critically about contemporary society. This will physically manifest with how we approach our new location where we’re planning on building on-site facilities that can be used by community members and our participating artists. We’ll have work space for SPACES’ residents and flexible programming space that allows for the display of vastly different kinds of art, like outdoor projects and projects we haven’t even thought of yet. Programmatically this idea of SPACES as a community resource will unfold through projects that help us understand our local perspective relative to the larger cultural context. We’re interested in throwing the doors wide open and changing perceptions about what can be considered art and who can participate in it or appreciate it.
Indra Lācis is an art historian and curator living in Cleveland Heights, OH. View more articles by Indra Lācis.